There’s no place for the import, sale or use of combustible polyethylene (PE) core aluminium composite panels in Australia, a Senate inquiry into non-conforming building products has declared.
The long-awaited interim report into cladding said while the Senate committee recognised there were compliant uses under the National Construction Code for PE core ACPs in low-rise buildings, and a Performance Solutions pathway for use of the cladding in high-rise buildings, in light of the Grenfell Tower tragedy it did not consider there to be any “legitimate” use of the product on any building type.
“The committee believes that as there are safe non-flammable and fire retardant alternatives available there is no place for PE core ACPs in the Australian market.”
Other recommendations include:
- Works to implement a national licencing scheme for all building practitioners
- Imposing a penalties regime for non-compliance with the National Construction Code, including revoking accreditation, banning from tendering in Commonwealth contracts and financial penalties
- Adequately resourcing the Federal Safety Commissioner ensuring that it is able to carry out its duties with new audit functions and projected work flows
- Working to establish a nationally consistent statutory duty of care for end users in the residential strata sector
- Bringing more representatives of the supply chain into the working of the Building Minister’s Forum
- Considering making all Australian Standards and codes freely available to the construction industry
Is a ban the way to go?
Labor senators Kim Carr and Chris Ketter used the report’s release to attack the Turnbull government for inaction.
“Each day the Turnbull government fails to respond to the widespread misuse of these dangerous products, more Australian lives are placed at risk,” they said.
There is some degree of disagreement over whether a ban is actually the way to go, however.
Building Ministers’ Forum chair and assistant minister for industry, innovation and science Craig Laundy said the call to ban materials at the border would not work.
He said the materials were used for all sorts of applications, such as signage, and some of the materials were created in Australia. He also said there were a range of combustible materials that should not be put on multi-storey buildings, including timber.
“We are not going to ban all timber production and importation!”
Property Council of Australia chief executive Ken Morrison said the call to ban the products was the “most contentious recommendation” in the report, and said Mr Laundy made a “fair point” about the proposed ban.
He said PE core ACP had mostly been used in ways that did not compromise fire safety, for example in signage or decorative features, so “to ban an entire product is a big call”.
Matthew Wright, general manager technical services and deputy chief executive of the Fire Protection Association Australia, said simply banning a product ignored “the broader issue of improving the competency of individuals across the construction sector, including accountability and clarity of roles”.
“Reform should focus on ensuring improved understanding and application of the current code, which would already result in preventing the use of combustible products that spread fire on building facades,” he said.
Increasing protection for strata apartment owners
Another major recommendation in the report was increasing protections for purchasers of residential strata apartments.
“The committee believes there needs to be a greater awareness and protection for consumers in the residential strata sector,” the report said.
“The committee considers there is an urgent need to provide a statutory duty of care to cover the discovery of non-compliant or non-conforming building products for the increasing number of the Australian public who purchase residential apartments.”
This is a position welcomed by the strata sector, however stakeholders are also asking the government to step up and act to mitigate the impacts of non-compliance on current strata owners.
Chief executive of Lannock Strata Finance Paul Morton said the long-delayed Senate report into non-confirming building products demonstrated why strata owners could not sit back and wait for leadership from government.
“It has taken 806 days and countless sittings and hearings for this committee to table a report that expresses concern at the ‘long time lag between government responses to the Lacrosse fire in 2014’,” Mr Morton said.
“I think we are all agreed that the threat to public safety caused by non-conforming building products in thousands of residential, commercial and public buildings is real, serious and urgent.
“However, if this is the government’s idea of an urgent response we can all be thankful that they are not out there fighting the fires that may result from the widespread use of combustible cladding that has occurred due to a breakdown in regulatory systems and checks.”
He said panellists at a recent fire safety forum he had convened had highlighted failures at every level of the strata supply chain, from importation to certification, regulation and outright fraud, and a ban did nothing to resolve the issue of current buildings with the cladding.
“The Committee acknowledged that there is an urgent duty of care required to cover the discovery of non-compliant or non-conforming building products but the recommendation offers nothing concrete for those people who are being left to pick up the tab for the multitude of failures that have been exposed over the course of this inquiry.”
He said owners corporations and strata managers “cannot wait for government”.
“If they have aluminium cladding on their building, testing is important but probably not enough. It will take a full fire safety report for owners to get a clear picture of the totality of their fire protection systems and an idea of what their next steps must be.”
A full fire safety inspection can cost anything between $2500 for a small strata building to $30,000 for a major tower. Testing of cladding currently costs around $7500.
Other recommendations highlight a need to improve professionalism and understanding of the requirements of the NCC.
The committee has called for national harmonisation of licensing standards for all trades and professionals that are part of the construction industry, including building surveyors, building inspectors, builders and project managers. This would “improve compliance and provide greater consumer protection and public safety outcomes”.
As part of any national scheme, it recommended that continuous professional development be a requirement for all industry professionals.
Mr Morrison said this measure was “consistent with the industry’s view”.
PCA also supported the recommendation to support the states implementing legislation to increase accountability further across the supply chain.
The committee’s recommendations around compliance and accountability included developing a national approach to mandatory inspections for compliance during construction.
There needs to be a “central oversight role” that is “independent from industry to provide assurance to the public that structures are built according to the agreed national standards”.
Focus needed on non-compliance
In an address to the 17 July 2017 public hearing by the committee, Building Products Innovation Council executive officer Rodger Hills said while the NCC had focused on ensuring products meet minimum standards and code compliance, far less emphasis had been placed on ensuring that products are used only for the purposes for which they are intended.
“This is a significant weakness in the current code and regulatory regimes in Australia that requires immediate attention. Our first submission to the Senate inquiry emphasised this and made a range of recommendations that the federal and state governments should adopt,” he said.
“We are concerned that given the urgency of the situation, and after the passage of two years, few of these recommendations have been implemented. We would urge the inquiry to move as quickly as possible to conclude its deliberations and produce a report that can be acted upon by government and industry.”
The committee’s recommendations around compliance inspections also endorsed mandatory inspections by fire safety engineers and fire authorities to “ensure buildings are compliant and public safety is upheld”.
Suggestions made to the committee from fire engineering experts included mandating an inspection before the closing of walls or ceilings to assess fire safety compliance.
Free Australian standards
The PCA also supported the recommendation that Australian Standards referred to in legislation should be made freely available.
“This is a sensible idea that will remove a barrier for smaller operators in the industry,” Mr Morrison said.
The report noted that currently there were around 100 standards referenced in the Building Code of Australia, and these have to be purchased from SAI Global at the cost of $120 each.
The committee recommended that because the contract between Standards Australia and SAI Global is coming up soon for renewal, it was an opportunity for the government to ensure the standards become free, and also are available from Australian libraries, as used to be the case.
Making the standards more accessible would help to improve compliance, the report said.
Other industry responses
The ban on importing PE core ACP was welcomed by the Construction, Forestry Mining and Energy Union, along with all other recommendations in the report.
“The CFMEU has been blowing the whistle on unsafe cladding for two years, urging action that was largely ignored,” CFMEU national secretary Michael O’Connor said.
“We’ve said it before and we’ll say it again: there is no point having an Australian Standard if it is not enforced.
“This lethal product is now widespread in Australian buildings. The federal government has known for at least two years that it is potentially fatal, but they’ve failed to act. It shows what happens when a free market ideology takes over – everyone cuts corners and lives are put at risk.”
Mr O’Connor said that if all the report’s recommendations were fully implemented, they would go a long way towards “restoring accountability, safety and integrity to the Australian building products industry”.
The Australian Institute of Architects also supported all recommendations.
National president Richard Kirk said the Institute shared the committee’s view that the use of non-conforming and non-compliant building products represented a real and present threat to the community.
“Ensuring public safety in the built environment is the chief priority of the architectural profession,” Mr Kirk said.
“We support the committee’s call for further urgent action to address the danger to our community posed by the de-professionalisation of building procurement over many years now.
“As our cities become increasingly dense, and our buildings more complex, it is essential that those within industry become more – not less – skilled and qualified, and their work subject to appropriately stringent checks and certification.”
Mr Kirk said the bar should be raised “across the board” with increased transparency and accountability for all participants throughout the construction supply chain.
“The built environment is an area where regulation is not only appropriate but necessary. Cutting red tape cannot and should not come at the expense of people’s safety.
“We want to see compliance and enforcement mechanisms strengthened across jurisdictions to properly protect all Australians in their homes, workplaces and in our public spaces.”
The Green Building Council of Australia is also backing action.
“A building or product that is unsafe is not sustainable,” GBCA head of public affairs Jonathan Cartledge said.
“There is already a lot of work being done by governments and industry to address non-conforming and non-compliant product. We welcome the Senate’s findings, and will work collaboratively with our members to support the final recommendations.”
The inquiry is due to deliver a second interim report on asbestos in October 2017.